As of Jan. 30, the New York Times Jan. 8 article, “Is law school a losing game?” was the second most e-mailed story during the last 30 days, according to the Times’ website. That article was also likely one of the highest e-mailed and shared articles in the Indiana legal community that week, if not for the month of January.
For the most part, Indiana lawyers and law school administrators agree that the Times article focused on the extreme ends of the story and that while the Indiana law schools are not entirely immune to what the article discusses, including high student loan debts and a poor job market for recent law school graduates, they are also being pro-active in working with their students on debt counseling and preparing them for their careers.
The article offers a look at the value of a legal education in a recession economy. It brings up a host of issues that are likely not news to most members of the legal community from the perspective of law school graduates and administrators, including one recent graduate of a school in California who owed $250,000 in debt after graduation and had no plans to repay it because he hadn’t been able to find work.
But whether the debt is $250,000, or the national average of at least $100,000 when students graduate – which is comparable to what students of law schools in Indiana owe at graduation – the article explains that there is no guarantee a student will get a job that meets the income expectation they had when they applied to law school.
Administrators at law schools in Indiana said they often explain to students how much debt they can expect to have at the end, including any school loan debt they already have, and what the job market has been like for their alumni and recent graduates. This can also include giving students information about loan repayment assistance programs for public service jobs if that’s their interest, or to give students an out if they need it.
For instance, in most cases of drop outs, which can have reasons that include a student needing to move or leave for family reasons or because they realize they simply don’t need a law degree for the career they’d like to pursue, some students figure out in the first year of law school that they want to quit, sometimes even as early as orientation, said Leonard Fromm, associate dean for students and alumni affairs at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.
Fromm has been with the school since the 1980s, and said he hasn’t noticed new trends in terms of more people dropping out or dropping out earlier due to the economy. He said some students do get an increased sense of awareness of the realities of the job market after they enter law school.
In one example, a law student realized she could probably make the same or more as an accountant, which was her background, and she left the law school early. As occurred in this case, he added, he would rather see a student figure out early that law school wasn’t for her than to continue to make a large investment of time and money without knowing for sure if it was right thing to do.
During his speech at his installation luncheon on Jan. 19, Michael Hebenstreit, the new president of the Indianapolis Bar Association, mentioned the article and said that he and Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis Dean Gary Roberts had discussed how to help students.
While the IBA already works with students at the law school, including discounted membership for students, networking opportunities, and the chance to attend continuing legal education classes for little or no fee, Hebenstreit said he and Roberts hoped to offer more information about the job market to students, giving them a better chance of getting a job when they graduate.
Hebenstreit also mentioned the IBA offers information sessions to students in their first year of law school that include strategies on time management and outlining. Second- and third-year students can receive information from the IBA on how to take the Indiana Bar Exam, as well as loan forgiveness, forbearance, and deferment.
Roberts said that law schools aren’t entirely blameless for some of the issues mentioned in the Times article.
“Law schools need to look at their business models and the way we’re preparing new members of the legal profession,” he said. Since the changes in the economy have affected the job market for lawyers, “there has been a lot of reflection and self analysis not just by the law schools, but also by the bar associations and members of the legal profession.”
Roberts explained that one of the reasons law schools are expensive is that they are offering opportunities, particularly legal clinics, which require more resources than the traditional classroom lectures. IU Maurer School of Law, Notre Dame Law School, and Valparaiso University School of Law offer extensive clinical opportunities for students and work with bar associations.
Heritage Hall at Valparaiso University opened its doors at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year as the Lawyering Skills Center. Students can learn pre-trial, trial, appellate, and arbitration skills, such as client interviews, and work with real clients in one of the center’s eight clinics.
Notre Dame Law School also offers various opportunities to students through its legal aid clinic.
That law school has also added an additional career services counselor, and will soon have four full-time counselors available to classes that are around 200 students, according to Chuck Williams, the dean’s executive administrator.
NDLS has also created a program to place graduates in government service or in nonprofits for up to six months for internships that sometimes lead to full-time positions. Students are also required to prepare a budget in order to obtain a loan, and they have access to loan counselors.
Efforts to keep law school loan debts low are also paying off, Williams said. Students of the law school have a default rate of around 1 percent, less than the national average of 7 to 10 percent, and the loan repayments are less than the average debt at all other top 30 private universities.
So with schools offering opportunities and information to current students, the question is how to create a pool of better-informed law school applicants, Fromm said.
Dean Lauren Robel of IU Maurer School of Law and Bill Henderson, a professor at the Bloomington law school and a nationally recognized expert on trends in the legal profession, said that students should do more research before making such a large investment of time and money.
Henderson, who was quoted in the Times article, told Indiana Lawyer that most potential students only know to compare law schools based on the U.S. News& World Report rankings, and he said very few applicants take the time to contact the individual schools for more information during the application process.
And, Robel added, “They wouldn’t necessarily know the right questions to ask.”
But if applicants did choose to ask, Michael Keller, assistant dean for the Office of Career and Professional Development at the Bloomington law school, said he would be happy to explain the school’s employment statistics. He added that all law school career planning offices should be willing to do this for potential students, and that he’ll tell applicants if other schools don’t share this information, or if they claim to have nearly perfect numbers, “not to buy anything else they might be selling.”
Roberts agreed that potential students are better off doing some research during or before the application process.
“If you’re going to invest three years of your life and more than $100,000 in education, you need to do your homework,” he said. “The majority of our students work for government, nonprofits, solo and small firms, and many work in small towns around the state. They are making $40,000 to $60,000 a year. If you’re a law student and think you’ll make $140,000 right out of law school, you’re an idiot.”
He added that this not only applied to his law school, but to even the most prestigious law schools given the current economy.
“But we also have a responsibility as a law school to keep costs down,” Roberts said.
He explained that about 80 percent of the school’s students save money because they are in-state residents and pay less than out-of-state residents. The law school in Indianapolis is also the only law school in the state to offer an evening program for students who prefer to continue working while attending law school, which is another way to keep costs down.
“Many law students are like high school basketball players,” he said. Even though the odds are against them, “They all think they’ll play for the NBA when they graduate.”
Henderson and others interviewed by the Indiana Lawyer said they expected the conversation to continue, and that the Times article probably made more potential law school applicants aware of the realities of debt and the job market.
However, he said there would need to be a change system-wide, not just among individual law schools, to get the ranking system to change and ultimately provide a more accurate portrayal of the job market and law school debt for recent graduates. It is unclear, he said, if or when that would happen.•